Even Google doesn’t open here!” That’s entrepreneur Prasad HL Bhat’s constant complaint when he visits his family in Shimoga, which is five to six hours away from Bengaluru. Surely he isn’t alone when it comes to whining about poor Internet connectivity in smaller cities, towns and villages across India. Yet, his startup Astrome is among a few in the world that is trying to fix this basic need of the 21st century.
The 18-member team, led by Neha Satak and Bhat at a lab in the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), plans to launch 200 micro-satellites into space, which will send you Internet that is ‘fast, reliable, available everywhere, and life-changing’, as the website declares. This will be achieved in three ways: One, their satellites can power existing cellular towers. Two, individuals can buy a set-top box and install an antenna for fixed-point uses at homes or offices. Three, one person can buy this set-up and redistribute the Internet to an entire locality.
Running behind their deadline, they will send their first satellite into space next year, and the rest by 2021.
“If you are developing an app, you can predict the timelines tightly, but when you are working on hardware like we are, it’s a different deal, So delays are not a big red flag in the hardware (industry),” says Satak, the CEO, coolly. Take, for instance, OneWeb, she says. The American startup, in which Sunil Mittal of Bharti Airtel has acquired a minority stake, has deferred the launch of the first 10 of its total 882 Internetbeaming satellites to the year-end. Still, deadlines are important, so her team is working hard to meet the new target. Which, for now is fine-tuning their technology for outdoor testing they will transmit signals between two rooftops, one kilometer apart.
The race to beam broadband Internet from the sky is already hot. ViaSat has been at it, offering 100Mbps download speeds in some areas of America. There’s Google’s Project Loon, Boeing, and Space X. Facebook tried to shoot Internet-delivering drones into the air, but abandoned the project. So what is the USP of this tiny startup? It lies in their patented MM-wave technology that allows them to send 100Gbps of data per satellite, five to 10 times higher than what these giants have proposed. “So individuals can access 50Mbps of Internet while businesses up to 400Mbps,” says Bhat, the CTO and chairman.
The duo first met at the IISc while studying and reconnected later to start Astrome in 2015, which has since won multiple grants, and awards (they were one of three tech startups to be awarded by president Ram Nath Kovind on National Technology Daythis May).
Not just India, other developing countries will also benefit from their floating routers. Their constellation will hover strategically along the Equator to cover Southeast Asia, West Asia, Africa, South and Central America, and Australia. “We know the market is in these developing countries,” Bhat cuts in. Rightly so, as he says “63 per cent of Indians live in rural areas and the rest in cities”, and “5-6 per cent of land is all where our traditional, optic fibre grids are concentrated”. So ‘Digital India’ is a distant dream, as also stated in the Internet in India 2017 report. It notes that the Internet penetration in rural areas is critically low at 20.26 per cent as opposed to 64.84 per cent in urban areas. “But the demand for Internet is increasing in rural markets at a rate of 30-40 per cent, per year. Now if this demand goes unmet, people will migrate to cities,” adds Bhat. But why should that be the case, they ask.
Yet, bridging this great Indian divide is going be a long haul. “The capacity of each of our satellites is 100Gbps. So if each user was to consume 10Mbps, each satellite can serve about a lakh people. To meet the demand of India alone, we’ll need to send some 10,000 satellites,” Bhat says with a chuckle. So, by 2021, he admits while they will be able to “serve everybody, but not in the same capacity.” Expansion will certainly follow.
Using its MM-wave technology (or GigaMesh), the startup will also fight mobile network congestion on the ground, and even make the telecom infrastructure 5G-ready.
Ask Satak why she chose satellite Internet over satellite telephony, and she says crisply: “Mobile phone network is already a solved problem, why should I launch satellites for that? I would rather spend money to deploy more 2G towers (to fight congestion). So it will be conservative of us to focus on telephony. It won’t be a useful incremental step for the world to see.” With satellite Internet, however, she says Astrome is taking a “jump” for mankind. – Mumbai Mirror